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Defying Doctrine, Methodists Elect Lesbian Bishop

Rev. Karen Oliveto
From left: Rev. Karen Oliveto and Rev. Robin Ridenour; courtesy United Methodist News Service

Rev. Karen Oliveto, a lesbian, becomes the first openly LGBT bishop in the United Methodist Church.

The Western Jurisdiction of the United Methodist Church, defying denominational doctrine against homosexuality, has elected an out lesbian bishop.

Rev. Dr. Karen Oliveto, elected Friday night in Scottsdale, Ariz., becomes the first openly LGBT bishop in the church's history, the Associated Press reports. She has been pastor of Glide Memorial United Methodist Church in San Francisco.

As bishop of the Western Jurisdiction, she will oversee churches in Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, Washington, Wyoming.

"Today we took a step closer to embody beloved community and while we may be moving there, we are not there yet," Oliveto said in a statement published on the denomination's website. "We are moving on to perfection." She is married to another clergy member, Rev. Robin Ridenour.

Oliveto was elected even though Methodist doctrine states that "the practice of homosexuality" is "incompatible with Christian teaching." In spite of this, there are many openly LGBT, partnered clergy members in the denomination. At the church's General Conference this year, delegates decided to delay action on changing this policy, with the hierarchy instead setting up a special commission to study issues of sexuality.

The Reconciling Ministries Network, which advocates for LGBT equality in the church, praised Oliveto's election in an online statement, saying it "celebrates with great joy." It further noted, "A 40-year-movement to end codified discrimination against LGBTQ persons is reaching a tipping point that hardly any rational-minded observer can deny."

Opponents of LGBT equality did not deny that, and they warned that Oliveto's election could lead to schism. Rev. Rob Renfroe, president of the conservative Methodist group Good News, said in an online post, "If the Western Jurisdiction wanted to push the church to the brink of schism, they could not have found a more certain way of doing so." Bruce R. Ough, president of the Methodist council of bishops, allowed that Oliveto's election "raises significant concerns and questions of church polity and unity."

Some forces are already trying to undo her election. The church's South Central Jurisdiction passed a resolution Friday night asking a high-ranking Methodist body, the Judicial Council, to review whether the election "of a person who claims to be a 'self-avowed practicing homosexual' or is a spouse in a same-sex marriage" is in keeping with church law, according to the Good News website.

Two gay men were up for election as bishops as regional church bodies met around the nation Friday, but neither succeeded, London's Guardian reports. Rev. Frank Wulf, running in the Western Jurisdiction, withdrew in favor of Oliveto, and Rev. David Meredith lost his election in the North Central Jurisdiction.

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